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El Almuerzo: The Spanish Version of Paddington Bear’s Elevenses

almuerzoWhen I was a child, I was enthralled with the persona of Paddington Bear.  My sister had the books on tape (remember cassettes?) and I would borrow them over and over, keeping them on as quietly as I could long past my bedtime to hear about the adventures of this little Peruvian bear. Looking back now, I can see why he was so appealing to me: he was free. I mean, that bear did just about whatever he wanted – he didn’t go to school, for example, which to my young self was a shining beacon of liberty that kept my eyes alight in the dark.

Why bring this up?  Well, it’s just that life in Spain keeps bringing Paddington and his duffle coat shuffling back to mind. The other day, I enjoyed a fabulous almuerzo, and suddenly, understood the enormous appeal of a meal that can really only be translated into English as ‘elevenses‘.

Up until researching this article, (yes, believe it or not I do actually research some of this stuff) I thought that elevenses was an invention unique to the Paddington Bear books; not so. The dubious teachings of the internet tell me that this is, in fact, a well-established tradition in Britain.  And, in a way, so it is in Spain.

When I was first learning Spanish in Madrid, I recall learning the word almuerzo and being told that it wasn’t used much. I put it out of my mind and there it stayed until recently. Katie, my wife, and I are not big on breakfast, and often end up just having coffee. That makes our late lunches seem really far away some mornings, especially now that we have to get Oscar up relatively early for school. The numerous chalk boards offering an almuerzo popular started to get our attention.

There was one place in particular offering a deal that seemed just too good to be true: a drink, sandwich and coffee for 3 Euros.  At those prices our expectations weren’t high, but we tried to keep an open mind. In the end, we enjoyed a decent glass of local white wine, a far-above-average sandwich (chosen from numerous options) and a coffee all served by two of the friendliest waitstaff we’ve encountered. We left completely content and convinced that we would soon be exploring the almuerzo further.

Where and When

Here in Valencia, it seems that a lot of people are having elevenses. Unlike Paddington Bear, and the other children’s characters that indulge in the British version (Winnie the Pooh, for example), this snack usually comes with a beer or glass of wine and strong coffee. The one that I had the other day was quite substantial, more a light lunch than a mid-morning snack as it’s often described.  Conclusion: almuerzo ? elevenses.

Six months in Barcelona didn’t expose me to the word almuerzo at all and I can’t even find the equivalent in Catalan, though they do use a word – berenar (merendar in Spanish) – for the afternoon version.  When I searched through a gastronomic dictionary provided by a site about Madrid, almuerzo wasn’t even listed.  I’m not sure if anyone in Spain , besides the Valencians, is in the almuerzo habit at all.

However, in some countries in Latin America almuerzo is the name for lunch, the largest meal of the day.  And I even found one Chilean who asserted that in place of a formal dinner, the custom in his region is to eat a light meal that they call once.  It’s very curious that they are calling a meal eaten between seven and nine in the evening, ‘eleven’. Paddington Bear at work again?

As a child, I was always fascinated by Paddington’s origins in ‘darkest Peru‘, a description more colourful than informative.  And now I find myself drawn to a meal that seems virtually relegated to equal obscurity in Spain. The thought is a nice accompaniment to my ‘elevenses’ taken sometime between 10 am and noon on days when I just can’t make it through to lunch.


Ivan Larcombe

Ivan loves wine and food almost as much as he loves writing
about them. Next on the list is hearing from interested readers: he
welcomes comments and visitors to his blog, Ivan In Valencia.

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  • hehehe, now that I'm in Madrid I miss my almuerzos from Valencia (esmorzar is the catalan word). I think they also do it in Catalunya, because when I lived in Terrassa I used to do the esmorzar with my neighbours, but I'm not sure if it was because my family came from Valencia and they imported the tradition.In Madrid is more common the desayuno, which is just after you arrive to work, and it is nothing more than a breakfast.

  • gabriellaopaz

    Olaf, who knew that we weren't the only ones living in Terrassa?! To be honest, you are absolutely correct in saying that almuerzo is the same as esmorzar, which is quite similar to desayuno. If there is a distinct difference, I'm not aware of it, as every work place I've worked at seemed to break around 10:30 am for their coffee and regional pastry of choice.

  • WinkLorch

    It certainly used to exist also in southern Germany – of all places – where it was called Brotzeit (bread-time) or sometimes more formally “Zweite frühstück” (2nd breakfast). When I spent a month working in Münich in the 70s they would start work at around 7am and then stop at 9.30/10 for Brotzeit consisting of a large beer and a sausage – I was appalled and stuck to coffee. Lunch was at 11.45/12 and was a pretty grim affair too. I suspect somehow things have changed – at any rate, I would much prefer your almeurzo.

  • You are right, there are differences between desayuno and almuerzo. In Valencia is later (10:30-11:00) and it is something salty (like a blanc i negre bocadillo, for example) and here in Madrid desayuno is as you said sweet with coffee (traditional churros, for example) and earlier around 9:00 am. I definitely prefer the Mediterranian version and have my breakfast at home. Also this version is more wine friendly 😉

  • Olaf – thanks for reading! I have a question for you:My catalán-english dictionary tells me that esmorzar means to have breakfast and my catalán-castellano one says it means desayunar. If it means almorzar, then what´s the word for breakfast?My bet is café…

  • Andrea

    Ivan, really interesting article, I didn't even realize that Spain hardly used the word almuerzo to refer to lunch! Growing up around all Latin Americans and then living in Miami, that's what everyone calls lunch and it's a big meal. In Portugal it's practically the same word used, “almoçoª but interestingly enough is that they have a period much like elevenese but in the afternoon as a snack called “lanche” which is pronounced the same way as lunch! That was a bit confusing for me at first hahaha, but they do also have that mid-morning meal as well, consisting of coffee, a sandwich or pastry, though from my observation, people vary their morning meals at the pastelerias from as early as 7am to as late as 11am with no alcohol as well usually. Anyhow, maybe I didn't catch it but what DO they actually call lunch in Spain? :p